[ANALYSIS] The curious case of greatly increased MHP support in predominantly Kurdish regions

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A pedestrian lights a cigarette as he walks past in banners with portraits of Turrkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and the leader of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli in Istanbul on June 19, 2018. Turkey is preparing for tight presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, while many analysts say President Erdogan wants a major foreign policy success to give him a final boost. / AFP PHOTO / Aris MESSINIS

Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has been the subject of intense speculation since the presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. Whereas the party’s unexpected share of the vote, more than 11 percent, has stunned observers, more importantly, its increasing support in the predominantly Kurdish regions of the country compared to that in the 2015 general election is under scrutiny.

In Van, for instance, a 155 percent hike was seen in the MHP’s votes, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had more or less the same support. In Mardin, the increase was around 180 percent.

While in Muş, the MHP increased its support by almost 160 percent, even in Diyarbakır, a stronghold of the HDP and Kurdish political movements, Turkish nationalists had roughly an 80 percent boost in support.

Another surprising result came from Hakkari, Şırnak and Siirt, where the MHP had an increase in support of 130, 200 and 123 percent, respectively.

There is one more implication of the results from the southeastern region of Turkey, according to OdaTV columnist Murat Ağırel: A significant percentage of voters in these cities chose not to cast a ballot for a presidential nominee on June 24, although they did for the parliamentary elections.

What could the reason be?

Several explanations have been put forward; yet none of them is able to help us fully comprehend the phenomenon.

One of them is the increasing number of security forces — military, police and gendarmerie — who would vote for the MHP due to “patriotic” feelings. But, according to Ağırel, that can only explain 10 percent of the increase.

We should add to this picture some half a million people who had migrated from Southeast to the western parts of the country due to military operations that started in 2015. However, this would only indicate a decrease in the HDP’s votes.

According to Middle East scholar at American University Mustafa Gürbüz, one of the possible reasons for the tendency to vote for the MHP could be the presence of almost 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which might well have created a backlash among Turkish and Kurdish citizens.

For some, the main strategy of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for capturing northern Syrian towns was based on a promise to reduce the Syrian population inside Turkey.

“In a post-election victory speech, with an understanding of the heightened resentment against refugees, Erdoğan repeated that they would be relocated back to Syria,” Gürbüz tweeted on June 26.

While seemingly convincing to some extent, this explanation is not much liked by diehard Turkish nationalists in Kurdish cities.

In the meantime, the Milliyet daily spoke with local MHP officials in those cities, who credited door-to-door election campaigning even in small villages in the region.

In Hakkari’s Çukurca district, known for intense Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activity within its borders, the MHP became the third biggest party on Sunday, by tripling its votes. The city’s MHP official, Fatih Özbek, explained the increase as due to the young generation’s conflict fatigue, adding that Hakkari has the youngest population in the entire region.

Under a heavy PKK threat for decades, Turkish nationalists had been unable to campaign in the Kurdish region. Apparently the MHP found a way to reinstall its organization in those cities, thanks to extensive military operations conducted for years now.

And the last, but not least, explanation for the recent increase of some 2 million MHP votes in the Southeast could be the rigging of ballot boxes in favor of Turkish nationalists, which, for some, would be less costly for Erdoğan.

Video footage that recently appeared on social media showing a person serially affixing a seal on MHP slots on the ballots as “evidence” of rigging the elections in favor of the MHP; however, so far there has been no investigation into the issue.

While many observers agree that Erdoğan has finally managed to achieve his one-man rule, some were more cautious on the MHP’s key role in parliament, indicating that Erdoğan would be a “lame duck” in office.

One thing seems to be certain: The new administration in Turkey will be more nationalistic than before.

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